Echo of history in Jokowi's 'mental revolution'

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Dr. Katharine McGregor

ARC Future Fellow

University of Melbourne

Jokowi argues investment in agriculture and resources will build a more optimistic national mindset.


In recent weeks the favoured Indonesian presidential candidate, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, has begun to share more of his vision for Indonesian society and to hint at potential policy orientations.


Jokowi has espoused the idea that in order to move forward, Indonesia requires “a mental revolution”, because in his view Indonesians are being held back by a negative attitude .


In order to encourage more forward thinking and optimism, Jokowi has vowed to focus on lifting agricultural production. He even boldly stated that he would greatly reduce food imports in the next five years, gearing the nation toward food self-sufficiency, if elected president on July 9. These are not easy goals to fulfill given farmers' limited access to technology and capital, complex import regulations, and a system that has so far - despite increased agricultural output - not ushered in more prosperity for farmers

Jokowi’s comments almost directly mirror the Sukarnoist slogan promoted in the early 1960s of ‘berdiri di atas kaki sendiri’  ('stand on your own two feet').

Yet Jokowi is not flying solo in this message. In fact his emphasis on improving agriculture and the productivity of farmers mirrors that of rival presidential contender Prabowo Subianto, who has been emphasising economic nationalism as a response to the ills of neo-liberalism. Prabowo has repeatedly talked of the need for greater emphasis on clause 33 of the 1945 constitution, which stresses the people’s rights to control and benefit from Indonesia’s natural resources.


As an historian of Indonesia I find both the language and ideas being used by Jokowi, and occasionally Prabowo, striking.


First of all Jokowi is evoking a ‘revolution’ in Indonesian society, a word with very dangerous past connotations due to the brutal crushing from 1965-68 of the Indonesian left, whose supporters advocated a class-based revolution in Indonesian society directed by former President Sukarno.


The main message coming from Jokowi is not, however, a radical social transformation, but rather an appeal to the population to break free from apathy.


Secondly his emphasis on the unrealised potential of Indonesia’s 250 million citizens mirrors Sukarno’s views,  and his mantra emphasizing the greatness of the Indonesian people and the need for national pride.


Thirdly the focus on economic nationalism mirrors Sukarno’s critiques of what he termed ‘neo-colonialism’, including on-going economic control of Indonesian resources after technical independence in 1949.


Jokowi’s comments almost directly mirror the Sukarnoist slogan promoted in the early 1960s of ‘berdiri di atas kaki sendiri’ (stand on your own two feet). Yet he brings to this idea a modern twist and greater economic skills than Sukarno. To advance Indonesia must, in his view, not just be a larger agricultural producer, but also make agricultural end products.


But why the return to Sukarnoist like slogans now? It’s over 40 years since Sukarno's death under house arrest, after being ousted from the presidency by a military-dominated regime that reversed almost all Sukarnoist thinking and abandoned his slogans,


Of course Jokowi represents the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which is seen as the successor to Sukarno’s secular nationalist Indonesian National Party (PNI). The PDI-P draws considerable support due to this lineage because of enduring admiration for the first president. Jokowi is also closely advised by Sukarno’s daughter, former President Megawati Sukarnoputri.


More broadly than this, however, economic nationalism was a very strong current in political thinking post-1949 as Indonesians had to negotiate beyond the first phase of political decolonization to a second phase of economic decolonization from Dutch and American capital.


This kind of thinking receded during the Suharto era (1966-98) due to the military’s depoliticization of the Indonesian public and the return to open markets. In the past 16 years the initial euphoria of the end of the Suharto regime, the unmet expectations of complete reform and the continuing spiral of corruption cases have created a sense of societal malaise and apathy about the economy and politics and citizens' ability to shape their destiny.


There is a sense that people want a break from the past and a new direction. From an economic perspective some feel too many concessions to and/or sales of Indonesian assets have been made in the past to foreign-owned companies or governments. This is viewed as not only bad for the Indonesian people economically, but also for the image of Indonesia as a country. At the core is the issue of ‘sovereignty’ and a preoccupation with Indonesian ownership and control of natural resources based on the legacies of colonial exploitation.


Although both Prabowo and Jokowi have tried to espouse a pro-people message, Jokowi goes an extra step to make this believable. In contrast to Prabowo’s luxury Polo club on the outskirts of Jakarta, for example, Jokowi lives more simply.


On a recent trip to Lampung he travelled, as usual, in economy class. Mirroring his pattern as Governor of Jakarta of mixing with the people, he also stopped by a traditional market near the open campaign site to enjoy a bowl of traditional meat ball soup with the locals.


Through actions and words Jokowi might just encourage a ‘mental revolution’, or at the very least a new sense of possibility amongst the people of Indonesia.